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Biology 103
2002 First Paper
On Serendip

Alcohol: From the Cradle to the Grave

Heidi Adler-Michaelson

Heidi Adler-Michaelson
Biology 103 Web Paper 1

Alcohol: from the Cradle to the Grave

"My baby was born drunk. I could smell the alcohol on his breath." (2). Maza Weya is an Assiniboine Indian. She grew up on the Fort Belknap reservation in Montana. She says that her "twin brother excelled at everything so [she] excelled at being an alcoholic" (2). Things worsened over the years, she had a child somewhere in between it all, and later started drinking perfume in the hope that it could help her quit. Her family intervened and took the child away from her and some time later she received the notification that her sister had adopted her son and she wasn't even there to give her consent. It was after this blow that she decided to go to rehab. Her son is 5 feet tall and weighs 95 pounds. The first time she talked to her son on the phone, she told him about her drinking problem during, before, and after the pregnancy. She says: "...he asked me why I didn't love him enough that I wouldn't drink while he was inside me...He asked if I had given him up because he wasn't perfect, because he was damaged" (2).

What could possibly lead a pregnant woman to drink during pregnancy? Well, of course there are those that have been addicted for years and find it impossible to quit of 9 months. It is true that most developmental problems in the fetus are generally linked to chronic and abusive drinking (1). But recent studies have shown that similar if not greater damage can be done to the unborn child whose mother does binge drinking (2).This is a concept defined as having five or more drinks at one setting (5). "The highest-risk groups of women in terms of drinking during pregnancy are women with master's degrees and higher and women who dropped out of high school" (4). The Centers for Disease Control found four times as many binge drinkers in 1995 as in 1991 (2).

Science has its own thoughts on this topic. During the first three months of pregnancy, the fetus is most vulnerable. The alcohol passes from the mother's bloodstream to the baby's (9). According to the March of Dimes "When a pregnant woman drinks, alcohol passes swiftly through the placenta to her fetus. In the unborn baby's immature body, alcohol is broken down much more slowly than in an adult's body. As a result, the alcohol level of the fetus's blood can be even higher and can remain elevated longer than in the mother's blood" (5).

Not to long ago, researchers discovered how exactly alcohol affects the development of the brain of a fetus. According to this research, getting drunk just once during the final three months of pregnancy may easily be enough to cause brain damage. "This is the first time we've had an understanding of the mechanism by which alcohol can damage the fetal brain. It's a mechanism that involves interfering in the basic transmitter system in the brain, which literally drives the nerve cells to commit suicide" (10). It is during the third trimester of pregnancy that a period called synaptogenesis begins. During this period, that continues into childhood, the brain develops rapidly and is most sensitive to alcohol. The researchers have found that parental alcohol affects two brain chemicals, glutamate and GABA, which helps the brain communicate with itself. The research is still going on with concentration on the link between damage to certain parts of the brain and problems in the adult (10).

How exactly are children who were forced to drink in their mother's womb different? There are many different definitions with only minor variations. As proposed by Sokol and Clarren in 1989, the proposed criteria are 1) prenatal and/or postnatal growth retardation (weight and/or length below the 10th percentile); 2) central nervous system involvement, including neurological abnormalities, developmental delays, behavioral dysfunction, intellectual impairment, and skull or brain malformations; and 3) a characteristic face thin upper lip, and an elongated, flattened midface and philtrum (the groove in the middle of the upper lip) (3). One of the most important things to know about children with this disability is that FAS (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome) is that they don't understand the concept of "cause and effect" (i.e. if I touch the hot stove, I will burn myself) (8).

Another important facet is the deviations of the gravity of alcohol among different ethnicities. According to the Centers for Disease Control, incidents of FAS per 10,000 births for different ethnic groups were: Asians 0.3, Hispanics 0.8, whites 0.9, blacks 6.0, and Native Americans 29.9. The former FAS coordinator on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation says that this data is mostly due to the fact that Native Americans are more open and comfortable in speaking about alcohol problems (2). But it is wide-spread knowledge that alcoholism has been a problem among Native American tribes for decades.

Melissa Clark is a 22 year old victim of fetal alcohol syndrome. Recently, when she was home alone in her house in Great Falls, a man rang the door bell. Even though she did not know the man, she opened the door and let the stranger in. She walk straight to her bed room and commenced to take off his clothes. He told her to do the same and she did. After raping her he simply got dressed and walked out. Some hours later her foster mother came home and Melissa told her what happened. Johnelle Howanach, her foster mother, called the police who in turn wrote it off as consensual sex. Johnelle however argues that Melissa did not know that having sex with a stranger was wrong. She says: "People with fetal alcohol syndrome just don't have those boundaries. They are eager to please, very friendly...They don't know the difference between a friend and a stranger because they can't remember" (6)..

In another case, a woman drank herself into a stupor in her ninth month of pregnancy. A Wisconsin appellate court ruled that she could not be charged with attempted murder of her fetus. In fact, the only state that criminalizes such behavior is South Carolina (7). This raises many questions among humanitarians. How much is too much and what should the consequences be, if any at all? Is the unborn baby considered a part of the woman or an individual living organism? Could it live without the mother? Will it ever be asked if it wants a sip? Is this even an issue of choice? After all, the Bible clearly states: "Behold, thou shalt conceive and bear a son: and now drink no wine or strong drinks" (Judges 13:7).


1) Westside Pregnancy Resource Center, "Prenatal Risk Assessment, Keeping Your Unborn Baby Healthy Through Prevention."

2) Great Falls Tribune, "My baby was born drunk."

3) National Institution of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism , "Fetal Alcohol Syndrome"

4) Tucsoncitizen, "Alcohol's toll on unborn worst of any drug."

5)National Institute of Health, "CERHR: Alcohol (5/15/02)."

6)Great Falls Tribune, "Fetal alcohol syndrome leaves its mark."

7) Family Watch Library, "A Setback For Fetal Rights In Wisconsin Alcohol Case."

8) Alcohol Related Birth Injury Resource Site, "Alcohol Related Birth Injury (FAS/FAE) Resource Site."

9) Evening Post , "Study looks at effects of alcohol on unborn."

10) Alcohol Related Birth Defects Resource Site, "Alcohol Related Birth Injury FAS/FAE) Resources Site."

11) University of North Carolina, "An Introduction to the Problem of Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBDs)"

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